Niekro learned the course he used through 24 major league seasons from his father, also known as Phil, a sandbox in Ohio who turned to it after injuring his arm. It worked so well for young Phil in pick-up games with the neighborhood kids – included John Havlicek, the NBA Hall of Famer of the future – that he never saw the need for other places.
“I did not know there were knuckleball pitchers in the big leagues,” Niekro said a few years ago. “I did not even know what a bone ball was. It was just something I had fun playing catch with my dad. ”
Jim Bouton, author of “Ball Four”, loved telling the story of meeting Niekro in Kearny, Neb., in 1959, when they were both 20 years old and just starting their pro careers. Bouton noticed that Niekro was practicing the ball in the field before a match, and the court was dancing.
Button threw several courses, including a knuckle ball, and asked Niekro what else he threw. Nothing else, Niekro replied, and Bouton felt sorry for him. In 1963, Bouton won 21 games for the Yankees and started in the World Series, while Niekro still had not appeared in the majors.
“I remembered him and thought, ‘Oh, poor boy, he’s still in minor leagues, and I do not know how he hangs out, because I’m on my way to the Hall of Fame,” said Bouton, a few years before he died in 2019. “Well, guess what? The poor boy, limited to a pitch – he’s in the Hall of Fame now. It’s a good reminder to me of the turtle and the hare.”
Niekro was 27 before he reached the majors for good, in August 1966, but his mastery of one course gave him a dizzying kind of durability. He had only 31 victories after his 30th birthday, and 287 thereafter. He logged more than 1,000 innings from 1977 to 1979, when he averaged 19 wins and 19 losses per season.